Let’s Have a Conversation About Menstruation

It might seem like an odd theme for an international “awareness day”, especially since it’s also a topic that many people would rather not think about. But May 28th was indeed Menstrual Hygiene Day, and while I’m a few days late to the party I think it’s worth taking some notice.

Menstruation is too often couched in euphemisms or hidden altogether (although it has featured on the Australian political stage recently as activists rally to have a tax on tampons removed). For many girls and women, the issue is much more important than “should I go horse riding” or “watch me play tennis without a care”.

For many girls and women around the world, it’s a question of education or livelihood. Sanitary products are not always available (or sanitary), places to change the products– such as toilets– are not featured in all schools and workplaces, and many cultures have taboos around the subject. Here’s a great infographic with statistics and information about the issues.

If you’re motivated by this conversation and you’d like to take action, I recommend the organisation called “Days for Girls“, which is trying to make it possible for all girls and women to have access to suitable sanitary products by 2022. (I love how specific that goal is). 

You can help by spreading the word or donating money to awesome organisations like Days for Girls. Or perhaps if you’re handy you could sew some feminine hygiene kits for women who don’t have access to tampons, let alone ones that will absorb an entire glass of blue ink.


The Spirit of Armenia Endures and Endures

Some things are just too difficult to write about. Human suffering, great tragedy, tumultuous emotion; these are perhaps best left for poets to explore through allegory and metaphor. Armenia and its story features notable examples of all these things; it seems to be a nation of tragedy and poetry.

Some things are too difficult to write about but they must be addressed.

Upon learning of the unspeakable atrocities of the Armenian Genocide, the centenary of which will be marked tomorrow, I wondered what I knew of Armenia at all. I couldn’t summons a picture in my mind’s eye of national garb or a location on a map. I couldn’t name a foodstuff or a famous export.

I looked at online maps and reflected upon the notion of this group of Christians, the earliest nation to adopt the religion, living at the “cultural crossroads” between Europe and Asia. Maps in my old books at home also revealed that Armenians have long lived near shifting borders, and have therefore been governed by different nations at different times; notably the Ottomans (who orchestrated the genocide), and more recently the Soviet Union.

But even my old anthologies of National Geographic Magazine did not help me to visualise an identity for Armenia; none of my 1920s or 1930s copies feature an article or colour photo spread. Armenian people were mentioned only in passing as an “amusing” story in a 1926 article by Melville Chater about the region. The writer described tens of thousands of Armenian refugees from “an hour of political insecurity” who had set up camp in Syrian marshland and were living on “boiled mice”. Hilarity ensued upon Melville realising that this group was not experiencing famine, just homelessness and strong accents: the Armenian refugees were in fact eating boiled maize (corn).

The internet assured me that descendants of Armenians now assume prominent positions in global, public life. One is a minister in Australia’s parliament with an anglicised name; another is guitar virtuoso, Slava Grigorian; while others are known simply as The Kardashians. (Admirably, the most famous of these visited Armenia with her Blue-Steel-faced family and a hefty entourage last week).

But what of the original Armenian culture? Its art has a rich tradition, the national costume is sumptuously decorated, and the area features incredible archeology including ancient structures and the world’s oldest cathedrals and monasteries.

Discovering these things reminded me that I was familiar with the work of an Armenian artist. A thoroughly striking way to experience a hit of Armenian culture is to view the extraordinary 1969 film, The Colour of Pomegranates, by film maker, Sergei Parajanov. I watched it again yesterday– I’d forgotten I had the DVD– and was newly mind-blown by a fresh reading of its stunning symbols (pomegranates being a key example; they are the national emblem of Armenia).

The Colour of Pomegranates is a painting in motion, a poem on film.

It ostensibly shows the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova, and seems also to give some autobiographical insight into the film maker himself (who suffered greatly for his art under the Soviet regime). It features Christian imagery, repetition of bold motifs such as books and blood, moody traditional music. I was particularly struck by the words in one of the final frames:

This film artefact encapsulates some things I have been thinking and feeling, but have not been able to write, since I learned about the Armenian Genocide. Witness the visual beauty that prevails despite the violence of this film, take note of the unique artistry and the brave tenacity of the film maker.

I can’t eloquently use words to say what Sergei Parajanov and his powerful, poetic images show: the Armenian spirit endures, 100 years later.



Know Your Soap

Savon Alep Aleppo Syria Soap Production Civil War

Some years ago, I had an Israeli friend; a charmingly easygoing fellow. One day I exclaimed to him: “My goodness! The Israelis have bombed Syria!”

“Oh yeah”, he shrugged, nonchalantly.

“I’ve done that.”


It is easy to be dismissive of overseas conflicts when they seem so far away (my friend had the additional excuse of being desensitised due to his own experience as an army conscript, a requirement of all Israeli citizens). We can shield ourselves by skimming or ignoring the confronting headlines. We can focus exclusively on local news. Or we can choose to immerse ourselves in our comfortable day-to-day lives, ignoring the daily reality of people in other places. It’s very tempting, it prevents us from feeling distress and it doesn’t seem to hurt anyone.

The other day when we ran out of soap I dug around in the bathroom cupboard and found a big bar that I purchased over a year ago. It was from Syria, and as I used the soap I thought about the people that made it. Were they caught up in the war? Were they able to continue making soap?

I wasn’t wondering because it was important to me that I have this special foreign soap. Instead, I realised that I was enjoying a little luxury while the people who afforded it to me were probably suffering.

The square block of soap that got me thinking is called “Savon d’Alep” by the French who are its biggest exporters. I learned that it is named for the city of its origin: Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and one of the longest inhabited cities in the world. Soap itself may have been invented there.

The method of making this soap is unique to Aleppo, and it requires specialist workers who are familiar with the various techniques involved. Many of the factories are owned and run by families who have been making soap for generations.

Savon d’Alep contains a particular ratio of olive oil to laurel oil (Greek-made soap, which is similar, contains only olive oil). The ingredients are boiled in huge vats before being laid out on the factory floor, to be flattened by workers wearing planks strapped to their feet. I would love to see that in action! They roughly cut the soap into the characteristic cubes and stamp them with a makers’ mark. After many months of drying, the bars of soap are ready for distribution.

And what of the soapmakers now? They have indeed been impacted by the Syrian civil war. Much of Aleppo, including many historical sites, has been bombed to smithereens in the fighting that has occured there intensely since 2012. Even if factories have survived the bombing, manufacturers are unable to purchase supplies, workers are unable to travel to their jobs and shipping routes have become too dangerous. Soap manufacturers have joined the many who have abandoned their homes and places of work to flee from the ongoing violence.

The simple act of using some soap and thinking about its origins provoked me to put down the shield I was holding up against overseas conflict. I spent some time researching Syria, which I gather was once a beautiful place to visit (it features heavily in stylist, Sibella Court‘s book “Nomad” for example). I studied maps of the region, including the old one in my picture with very different borders to the modern version, which is in itself enlightening. I read articles about the reasons for the conflict. I felt grief for the thousands of innocent people who have died or continue to suffer in the deadly war, I hunted around the internet for ways to assist people in Syria.

And I savoured, with gratitude, my fat cube of Savon d’Alep soap.


For further information about the production of soap in Syria and how civil war has affected it, follow these links (keeping in mind that none of these are very recent articles, so presumably things are even worse now):

War Threatens Ancient Tradition on BBC News by Golda Arthur

Famous Aleppo Soap Victim of Syria’s Conflict on Your Middle East by Jean-Pierre Campagne, AFP

Modern Threat to Syria’s Ancient Aleppo Soap Industry on Reuters by Khaled Yacoub Oweis

Savon Alep Aleppo Syria Soap Conflict War

For Those Who Don’t Know (or Care) It’s Christmas

Do They Know Its Christmas Candle Holly

Dear Sir Bob Geldof, even though you had great intentions and you achieved wonderful things, your legacy at Christmas annoys the heck out of me.

Every year around this time, a trip to the supermarket is even more of an endurance test because the piped music gets– even– worse. And while “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is not the worst song ever , the lyrics really get on my nerves.

The story about how the song was created reveals a lot about the sentiments expressed in it, I think. In 1984, Bob saw a documentary or news item about the famine in Ethiopia, was moved to help, gathered his mates, wrote a song and recorded it in 24 hours. It was a fast-moving attempt to really grab at the heartstrings of people in wealthier nations and it worked; it raised millions of pounds. The title was designed to make people look at themselves, have some empathy and give generously.

But nearly 30 years later the lyrics just sound smug.

Back in 1984, the choice to play it on radio was an effort to publicise the fundraising efforts. The choice to purchase it was a genuine gift. Now we can hear the song in the supermarket, listen to these lyrics and ignore the fact that there are still famines, that wars continue, that many many people suffer hardship at this time of year around the world.

And so, Sir Bob, I think it’s a sweet song, I really do, but I’m pretty sure “they” don’t care about Christmas, they just care about getting through each day. The real question now might be: does anyone know or care about “them”?

(NB: One organisation that I really love makes it easy to remain in the Christmas spirit but also give to those people who need something other than snow and good cheer. Oxfam suggests that we “Give Geniusly” and makes it possible, through its Oxfam Unwrapped program, to give your loved ones goats, ducks or a well. In a manner of speaking, of course. Your gift actually goes to those who need it, while your loved one receives an amusing e-card.

It’s really cool, it really means something and there are a variety of financial options so you can give what you can.

But do it now because today is the last day that it’s available before Christmas! If you miss it, of course they’ll take your donation any time of year.)

Here and There

Iraq could easily become a sort of “concept” in our minds, a war-torn wreck that only exists on the news. But Iraq is a real place where people, including women like me with families, are going about their lives right now.

Iraq Iraqi Woman Elizabeth Ashburn Painting Art

I have long been fascinated by the idea that life goes on in other places, even though I’m not there to observe it. I think it began when my childhood best friend and I were told that we would not attend the same schools. We were both very sad at first, and that’s when I regularly began to think about and try to visualise what was happening elsewhere. My friend is at school, doing whatever he is doing, and I am here at the same time.

It was simultaneously comforting and weird. A discovery that time and space exist outside of me and my immediate experience.

So what is happening in places far away from me now? Can I imagine what is happening somewhere very distant, and far outside my experience, like Iraq?

Iraq Iraqui Food Broad Beans Rice Timan Bagalah

The artwork at the top, Iraqi Woman by Elizabeth Ashburn, which I encountered at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery the other day, illustrates both a cultural context and daily reality for a woman in Iraq. I tried to create a small Iraqi experience by making the broad bean dish pictured above (called Timan Bagalah) which is apparently a daily staple in Baghdad and which was very popular in my house. And I made some biscuits based on Hadgi Badah (or Haji Badah), with cardamom and rose to try and capture a pleasant side of Iraq; these were devoured by my sweet-loving fellers.

It was all just a reminder: Iraq is far away but it is happening now.

Iraq Biscuits Cookies Haji Hadgi Badah Cardamom Rose

Sculptures / Scattered

Marcus Tatton Laptop Mirror Sculpture Tasmanian Nature Technology

A satirical radio segment in very poor taste this afternoon suggested that an internet blackout in Syria was on par with other recent atrocities in that country. The mock-horror of the announcers reflected the way that our society views technology as vital, essential, indispensable.

Technology has become embedded in our lives (those of us who are lucky enough to have regular access, that is), and this has mixed results.

Marcus Tatton Technology Digital Binary Sculpture Tasmania

We have access to, and are also bombarded with, more information than any other generation in history. Tools for creation, such as recording and publishing, are widely available. Meanwhile, such tools develop and improve at such a rate that they are quickly outdated and relegated to trash. (I’ve raved about this before, in relation to phones).

Marcus Tatton Hobart Tasmania Botanical Gardens

The marvelous internet offers infinite connections between ourselves and others in faraway places, but can also entrap us in its addictive and furtive web. It collects and stores everything that we deposit into it, whether we like it or not.

Marcus Tatton Peter Lundberg Sculpture Wooden Arches Tasmania

The sculptures in these photographs feature in an exhibition by Marcus Tatton at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens. The work begs questions about technology and the digital world and its place in, or relationship with, nature. The scale of the sculptures reminded me of the first computers (check out this NASA analog “computer” from 1949).

Marcus Tatton Vessel History Archaeology Sculpture Hobart Gardens

I’m currently experiencing some mixed reactions to my own increased interface with information and technology. My inputs are blown, my focus is scattered. I’m not complaining, because I’m not entirely sure that all this technology is really essential, only very desirable.

Marcus Tatton Laptop Sculpture Ten Days On The Island Nature Technology

I just wish there were more hours in a day, because I’m also bubbling with ideas, a phenomenon summarised in this excellent quote by Douglas Hofstadter:

“A deep immersion in anything makes you more creative.”

Marcus Tatton Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens Derwent River Mountain View